Thursday, October 18, 2018

Digital Resources for Independent Theatre Makers in New York

This blog post is part a project for the ITP (Interactive Technology and Pedagogy) certificate at the CUNY Graduate Center. I used this project to explore digital technology in the field of theatre, particularly in New York City's independent theatre community. Indie theatre holds a unique space within the New York theatre community. Often called "off-off-Broadway" theatre (I am choosing not to use that term because not all theatre should be referred to by its relationship to "Broadway"), the independent theatre movement generally refers to non-commercial productions produced in smaller venues that hold under 99 seats. 

I am interested in understanding what digital interactive platforms are available for independent theatre-makers in New York City and how they are being used. Over the course of the project, I had to expand my scope for how I am understanding and defining "interactive technology" because the ideal interactive platforms that I was looking for do not exist (HowlRound comes the closest). There are specific platforms for message boards, essays/articles, reviews, archives, but nothing that cohesively combines these items to provide a dynamic forum for artists to discuss their work and build a stronger community.

While there have been some extraordinary archives over the years, the biggest ones such as the Indie Theatre Archive/ New York Theatre Experience and Backstage have been shut down or significantly revamped due to lack of resources and not enough labor to properly maintain the archives. Additionally, these sites provided some of the resources above, mainly reviews, listings and audition calls.

Utilizing social media, e-mail listservs, and direct text messaging, I asked independent theatre artists for recommendations regarding locating the interactive platforms that already exist and the ones that artists would like to see in the future. I also drew upon my own knowledge as a theatre practitioner and the online spaces that I regularly visit.

Audition Update

Created for actors by actors, Audition Update is the premier communication tool for non-union actors to communicate regarding audition sign-ups and expectations. This community-generated forum allows for immediate information to be distributed. Non-union actors depend on this platform to be notified whether or union auditions will “see” non-union actors. This platform also provides a necessary (and anonymous) space to vent and exchange advice.

Acting can be an incredibly isolating profession, not to mention non-union actors are at the greatest risk for being exploited and abused by employers. This platform is important because it provides a space for non-union actors to commiserate and exchange valuable information about theatre companies, auditions experiences, and upcoming opportunities to "be seen". This platform also provides an honest (and anonymous) space to discuss compromising situations and experiences both in the audition room and on the job. There is a culture of silence within the theatre community (which is slowly beginning to break thanks to the #MeToo movement) regarding abuse, discrimination, and exploitation of performers. Due to the high competition and a limited amount of work, people are less likely to speak up. Anonymous platforms provide these spaces to call abusive artist staff and companies out. This space also provides a much-needed platform to commiserate as a community because being an actor is hard and being "non-union" is even harder. 

The Civilians: Extended Play

The Civilians is a Brooklyn based investigative theatre company. Their mission is to connect theatre and society by asking the pressing questions of the day. They run an extraordinary platform called Extended Play, which is "theatre beyond the theatre" and dives into the critical issues that theatre are grappling with in terms of the relationship between theatre and society. According to the Civilians website, "Extended Play is an online platform for creative and critical discourse devised by the Civilians, a company that makes new theater from investigations into the most vital questions of the present. Through a number of artistic programs, the Civilians advances theater as an engine of artistic innovation and strengthens the connections between theater and society."

It seems that this platform is not regularly updated (though the archive is still there and its resources are vast and fascinating). I am listing it here because it does/did something unique in that it not only reflects the mission of The Civilians (creating investigative theatre), but it puts that mission into practice and truly explores the intersection of performance and social practice. It is a wonderful example of praxis.

HowlRound Theatre Commons

HowlRound embodies the vision of what I think an ideal digital platform for theatre should be. HowlRound is a free and open platform for theatre-makers worldwide whose content includes essays, podcasts and videos submitted from artists and writers across the globe. They “amplify progressive, disruptive ideas about theatre and facilitate the connection between diverse practitioners and function as a ‘commons’ – a social structure that invites open participation and shared values.” Each day HowlRound posts new content which includes articles, blog posts, live streams of performances and theatrical events. HowlRound also has a weekly digest where readers can subscribe to receive the articles from the past week directly in their e-mail boxes.

HowlRound is based out of Emerson College in Boston. While it does not serve only the New York "independent theatre" community, the insightful well-written articles and materials provide a deep dive into the conversations that are happening within artistic communities across the globe. Spending only 10 minutes searching the HowlRound Theatre Commons will give readers

Go See A Show

The Go See a Show! podcast is the only podcast dedicated to the independent, or “off-off-Broadway,” theatre scene in New York City. Each episode features an interview with artists making theatre in our community, discussing the ideas and process behind their work, usually focused on a show currently running around town.

This is another platform that is providing the necessary exposure to independent artists. Each episode of the podcast centers around a show that is currently running in an independent theatre and the artists who are working to create the work. Go See A Show! is unique in that it is not reviewing the shows, but simply providing the artists with a space to discuss their work and their practice. This podcast is for the independent theatre community and is a useful tool for artists to have archive their work. 

Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library

The Hemispheric Institute is run out of NYU. It is a "collaborative, multilingual, interdisciplinary consortium of institutions, artists, scholars, and activists throughout the Americas. They work at the intersection of scholarship, performance traditions and politics. Hemi has wonderful programs for young artists/activists, in addition to residencies, performances and lectures. They also have an online digital video library. “The Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library (HIDVL) is the first major digital video library of performance practices in the Americas. Created in partnership with NYU Libraries and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this growing repository guarantees historical preservation and free, online access to almost 900 hours of video through the Hemispheric Institute website. A trilingual Profile (English, Spanish and Portuguese) is created for each collection, contextualizing the videos with detailed production information, synopses, image galleries, texts, interviews, bibliographies and additional materials. Artists and organizations always retain the copyright to all their videos, as well as the original material, which is returned after digitization. With video documentation spanning from the 1970’s to the present, the collections seek to promote dialogue and a deeper understanding of performance and politics in the Americas.”

I have included this on my list because it's the only archive of it's kind (outside of the NYPL or library archive) to have tri-lingual language features and focus predominantly on Latin American performances. This archive in combination with the important work that Hemispheric Institute does in its daily operation makes this a unique and solid addition to this list.

The Interval

The Interval describes itself as "a theatre publication interested in ideas and how people think and view the world. The Interval features actors, writers, directors, composers, producers, and designers; people from theatre’s past, present, and future. The only people we do not feature are men.

The work of The Interval is needed now more than ever. Most recently they published a roundtable discussion that addresses the mental health of women theatre-makers. I have not seen anything like this anywhere else and it’s an imperative discussion to be spearheading. They also are in the community promoting women’s work and women artists in the theatre. I am not sure if The Interval only focuses on women working commercially (this seems to be the trend based on the articles I've read - though their mission statement claims they are open to everyone). That being said, next to HowlRound they are one of the most important platforms for hosting relevant theatre conversations. 
This is exactly what it claims to be (and more), a podcast that introduces listeners to artists, traditions, shows and performances across time and place. This is a critical tool for the theatre community, especially for introducing students to theatre history. Live performance isn’t something that’s always easy to study and understand. According to their mission, “this podcast aims to introduce listeners to the artists, scholars, and archivists who are working to bring the history of performance to life. We hope that, by listening to this show, you’ll learn about exciting new performances, fascinating books, and valuable repositories of knowledge, all of which will help you better understand theatre’s history.” Each episode features a blog post with additional information that readers can find sources. Readers also have the opportunity to post comments and continue the conversation.

The Theatre History Podcast helped me pass my first comp exam. I would listen to an episode each day to familiarize myself with a new performance technique or “theatre moment’ in history. The host is dynamic, makes the work accessible and connects

Indie Theatre Archive

While this platform is no longer with us (there was a wonderful show created about the life and work of Marin Denton last year), it is worth noting because it was one of a kind and one of the very first online platforms to provide resources to New York's indepdent theatre artists. "The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., was a nonprofit corporation. Founded in 1999 by Martin and Rochelle Denton, NYTE gave the indie theater movement its name, and used new and traditional media to promote the work of America’s foundational theater artists to a worldwide audience. Their major programs were the website, NYTE Small Press, nytheatrecast, and Indie Theater Now. NYTE is in the process of closing down all of its operations by the end of 2018," this is what is now left of the New York Indie Theatre Archive website.

I hope that Mr. Denton is enjoying a much needed retirement and rest. I also hope that somewhere all of his hard work has been archived so it's available for future generations. 

Message Boards, Social Media Groups and E-Mail Listserves

I had spread these out as separate categories and listed specifics but instead, I am lumping a few of these platforms together since they serve a similar function. There are many e-mail listserves from specific organizations that work to connect independent theatre artists but they are mostly taken up by casting calls, people advertising their shows (among other services), sublet and rental needs, fundraisers, crowdsourcing and general "noise". While these are the most commonly used modes of communication, there is a general problem of

Broadway World and Playbill have specific message boards that at some point were shut down and then reopened because people were abusing them. These message boards were primarily for fans and became anonymous spaces to trash talk performers and productions. At some point, there was a predominant theatre actress Patti Murin, who wrote a scathing blog entry about bullying on the message boards that caused Broadway World to revise their community standards.

Some Closing Thoughts:

Over the short time span that I've worked on this assignment (about 3 weeks), I surveyed nearly 50 independent theatre artists who are currently working in New York City via e-mail and social media regarding what online platforms they use to communicate with other artists and receive news about the community. The most popular sources were private e-mail lists and Facebook groups, though several artists expressed anxiety around Facebook (information no longer being private, and the pressure to "perform" a certain amount of success for their friends). Many people are looking for avenues to get away from social media but none exist at the moment.

Artists expressed a need for an internet platform that connects independent theatres in cities throughout the United States, particularly for locating performance spaces and venues for touring. Additionally, there are requests for a crowdsourcing platform that would specifically fund theatre projects. Finally, there is a general feeling that artists are working in silos, there is little financial and social support for their work (unless the person is independently wealthy or "has connections") and a sense of chronic "busyness" makes folks exhausted.

Personally, I would like to see a platform similar to the structure of HowlRound but that specifically addresses the issues, concerns, and culture of independent theatre-makers in New York City. I think the mix of articles, essays, blog posts, alongside an open forum would be a dyamic tool for the community.

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